A Case of Good Taste and Bad Timing
By Bruce McKinney
On May 6th, in London, the map collection of Frank Benevento, of Palm Beach Florida, was sold by Sotheby's. The sale brought British pounds 1.343 million for the 56 items [of 71] that found a buyer. Winning bidders altogether paid about what Frank paid over the past decade. After deducting auction commissions he sustained a loss of 24%. The 15 unsold lots, including several of the best items, amounting to about 15% by value, remain to be dispersed. Of the lots sold, seventy percent changed hands at or below the low estimate. Mr. Benevento's total investment in the auctioned material was BP 1.9 million, in dollars, $2.4 million. Following the sale Mr. Benevento expressed disappointment. In addition to being a map collector he's an investor. As an investment it didn't work out.
Mr. Benevento selected Sotheby's to conduct the sale based on personal impressions and his relationship with Catherine Slowther, a Director of the books and manuscripts department. He signed a contract on September 17th, 2009 for a single owner sale to be conducted in London in the spring of 2010.
This is his story.
Frank Benevento has experienced success throughout his life, and as is the wont of successful men, sought to convert wealth into style and savoir-faire. Money takes you only so far. For some, and Frank is one, the greater goal was the patrician life, the unstated objective to become a renaissance man. Growing up in Chevy Chase, in an upper middle class family, he early on was immersed in history and remembers browsing antique shops in Chevy Chase and Georgetown when others were buying clothes and tennis rackets. His background is Italian with a strong attachment to European culture and history. In time this would become a factor in his collecting.
He graduated from Georgetown summa cum laude in 1970 and University of Virginia Law in 1973. Fresh from school, he was interested enough to buy antiques rather than reproductions. His first job was as a lawyer with Sharon, Pierson, Semmes, Crolius and Finley in Washington. In 1977 he moved to Lehman Brothers in New York as an investment banker working on mergers and energy, later starting a private equity fund in the oil and gas field. In the late 1980's he played a role in the RJR Nabisco takeover that was noted in Barbarians at the Gates. With financial success came the desire for cultural accoutrements. His work regularly brought him to Europe where a chance encounter at the Medici Apartments in Florence ignited his interest in important images, particularly maps and paintings. In the years following he assumed important maps were the exclusive domain of museums. He loved them but they were unobtainable. Ten years ago, quite by chance, he walked into the Arader Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York and found in the early maps of Italy a personal connection. He bought a few, and began to read about and later collect them.
Over the course of the next ten years he traversed the full arc from museum observer to collection owner, in time, spending several million dollars to acquire many of the earliest, rarest, and most expensive maps, often of the world, always the creations of the great European mapmakers. In his headlong pursuit he achieved, for a few years, the dealer sobriquet "whale", the term conferred sotto voce on the biggest buyers.